Save the art school

The Cass' fight to stay in the heart of London is symptomatic of the marginalisation of Britain's art schools

‘Do what you want 'cos this is the new art school’.

‘Art School’, The Jam, 1977 

Art school. The great British petri dish that has incubated thousands of artists, musicians and karmic chameleons, all hellbent on shaping and subverting global cultural consciousness. The now familiar role call scintillates across the decades, leaving a glittering residue on the dull backdrop of national life. Art school is the Frankenstein that transmogrified Bowie and Roxy, among others, and mainlined them into gazillions of grateful suburban bedrooms. In his recent John Peel lecture, Eno fondly recalled his time at art school in Colchester. Space, time and permissiveness were a heady impetus for all sorts of shenanigans. After this stint, he was ‘invited’ to join Roxy Music. The rest, as they say, is history.

Clearly, it could not last. And so, following the infamous Browne Review of 2011, which prescribed swingeing cuts across higher education, the present government has been doing a stand-up job of castrating art schools in the sphincter-clenching belief that this rough, provocative beast, fundamentally at odds with the demands of a submissive services economy, needs to be taught a lesson. At the time, Paul Thompson, Rector of the Royal College of Art said the government had ‘swung a sledgehammer’ at arts teaching. Since then, slashed budgets, increased fees and ‘rationalisation’ of courses have taken their toll on a radical pedagogical system that was once the envy of the world. Eno would have a hard time making it to art school now. This dismaying emasculation is perhaps most acute and apparent in London, where the capital’s art colleges, being inadvertently housed in prime central real estate, are invariably falling victim to the slavering greed of property speculation.

The current furore over the future of The Sir John Cass Faculty of Art, Architecture and Design, confronted with the prospect of enforced relocation to Holloway from its historic base in Aldgate, is the latest in a depressing chain of fallen dominoes. Central St Martin’s has long deserted its old haunts in Charing Cross Road (now colonised by Foyle’s) and Southampton Row (awaiting conversion into yet another anodyne high-end hotel) to be stuffed into the soulless gulag of a former warehouse in King’s Cross and put to work as a compliant ‘creative catalyst’ for the area’s ongoing masterplan. The institution that gave the world Gilbert and George, Alexander McQueen and Jarvis Cocker is now the wonkily applied lipstick on a very large and very ugly real estate baboon.

Relationship with locale is crucial to the art school dynamic. Art students gloriously energise their surroundings, but frankly, who wants them slouching around central London, getting in the way of salarymen and out-of-towners. And of course, students are all paying customers now, understandably more keen on getting value for their money than starting a revolution. Yet the potential fate of the Cass, a move that seems especially emblematic of the low regard that government and university administrators have for arts education, has triggered an indignant round of student protests and petitions. Exile to Holloway will abruptly sever the college’s intimate relationship with the East End and precipitate cuts in jobs, courses and student numbers. For instance, the course in musical instrument-making, unique in Europe, which has a small student cohort but requires a large space, is due to be put to the sword. ‘The building has become more valuable than the students that come here’, says artist Jessica Voorsanger.

Surrounded by the ominously tumescent stumps of in-progress towers, the Cass site presents a juicy tabula rasa for development. ‘When you build flats over an art college, that’s a massively uncreative thing to do’, says artist Jeremy Deller, who is also a Cass Visiting Professor. ‘Art colleges are the drivers of change, innovation and new ideas’. Yet caught in the fallout of an education system increasingly hostile to the very idea of art schools and a London fatally in thrall to the toxic greed of speculation, it looks as though it could soon be curtains for the Aldgate Bauhaus. ‘Do what you want ‘cos this is the new art school’.

A video of the Cass protests.